Dennis Bock on writing stories and the search for fundamental truth

The Giller-nominated author on the writing process

Jaime Hogge

THE 2013 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE: Canada’s most distinguished literary prize awards $50,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English. In this series, Maclean’s highlights the work and artistic process of the five shortlisted nominees. In this edition, Going Home Again author Dennis Bock writes about his immigrant parents and growing up in Canada. Here are the other interviews and book excerpts from Lisa Moore, Craig DavidsonLynn Coady and Dan Vyleta.

There’s a social media acronym to express the anxiety linked to missing potentially interesting experiences: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). The term is usually reserved for that pang felt when viewing the Facebook photos of a missed party. And though that may seem glib, the genesis of that feeling—that decisions close doors to alternative events—is a long-standing existential quandary: If a different path were chosen, how would I be different?

Dennis Bock, whose novel Going Home Again is nominated for the Giller, grew up in Oakville, Ont., but his immigrant parents wrestled with moving back to Munich before he was born.

“Growing up, I did live in the moment, but was always aware of the alternative life we weren’t living. I was always in two places,” says Bock. “But I think I’ve come to understand that who you are is not defined by where you are—you are fundamentally yourself.” Though familiar with feeling divided, Bock knows that only one life can be lived at a time. But in the back of your mind, he says, those unchosen possibilities linger.

Dennis Bock on writing

My parents almost gave up on Canada. They’d come over from West Germany in the mid-’50s and, after 10 years here, my dad built a big wooden box and filled it with belongings they’d be shipping back to Munich. They’d given this country their best shot but home was calling. They were done.

I don’t know what changed my mom and dad’s thinking on the matter, what last-minute urgency prevented them from sailing back across the Atlantic, but in the end, I grew up in southwestern Ontario instead of Bavaria, and that box was transformed from shipping crate to catch-all, just another storage unit in a damp basement full of clutter. But it was always more than that in my eyes. It was a constant reminder of how close I’d come to growing up German—to being someone I didn’t recognize. That near miss with my European self forced me to wonder what fundamental part of me would have stayed unchanged, if any, if we’d gone back. As unsettling as this was, though, the idea of an alternative life opened up a world of possibilities for me. It brought me out of my immediate experience and obliged me to consider the what-if scenarios that I suddenly saw all around me. I learned to put myself in other people’s shoes, imagine what the world was like for them, seen through their eyes. Even into my 20s, home from university, say, I’d encounter that old box in the basement, by then dusty and mothball-smelling, and the series of possible lives I’d worried over in my youth would step out from the shadows and say, “See, see how close you came to being someone else?”

The time in my life that I spent considering the possibilities inherent in that plywood box might be seen as some sort of junior boot-camp for the novelist I eventually became. It gave my imagination a good workout, it humbled me, and it opened the door that I walk through every day now in my writing life in the search for the stories that might reveal some fundamental truth about who we are.

I choose to believe that there’s a part of us that will not change, regardless of where that box takes us, and I like to think that’s what I was after in Going Home Again. I wanted to find that essential quality that makes us who we are. It’s Charlie’s search for the meaning of what it means to be a good father, husband, brother and uncle that propels him forward into a world marked by lost love, betrayal and murder. But conflict reveals character, and we know him better for the challenges that assail him on his way through this novel. In the end, he might not find the answers he needs. Maybe he does. But in learning to ask the question, he comes that much closer to the diamond of unalterable truth that might lie inside each and every one of us.

Dennis Bock discusses immigration and family with Maclean’s. Interview by Julia De Laurentiis Johnson.

Q: In your essay, you talk about how your immigrant parents nearly went back to Germany and how you were born there. My mom has a similar story: She was born in Italy and moved to Canada with her parents when she was nine. Growing up, she said she was always at odds with the culture in her house and the culture out her front door, constantly adjusting to move between these two worlds. Did you find the same thing growing up?

A: I know what she means. I remember thinking that my friends whose parents spoke with a Canadian accent were incredibly exotic—classy! I was aware of a sort of class difference, to speak with unaccented English. In the world my parents lived in here in Canada, most of their friends were German from Germany, and I thought that was so normal.

Q: Yeah, I remember my mom telling me there was always an underlying feeling that they felt like visitors. Did you have that feeling?

A: Not quite, but I was always aware something was happening off-screen. My life was in Oakville, Ont., but I knew there was another story happening in Germany, one we narrowly missed having. I was in my moment, but always very aware of the alternative life we weren’t living. That’s what I think a writer does, or what I do; I’m rarely in one place at one time. I often think about the second place that I’m not in right now, connecting with something that’s not immediately before me, also in an existential sense—existential nostalgia, maybe.

Q: In your other work, The Ash Garden, with this one, Going Home Again, and in your essay, you explore the theme of considering the paths we don’t take, who we could have been if we hadn’t taken that job in that new city, or perhaps finding we fell on the wrong side of history despite our best intentions.

A: Yeah, exactly. I lived in Madrid for five years as a young man, and I came to a point when I was very clearly living there, and it was time to make a decision: Is this my new home? Will this be my life? And I came back to Toronto. But in Going Home Again, I considered the possibility that I’d stayed for 20 years. What would I have done? I was living with a Spanish woman at the time and I would have had kids and the whole bit. So I followed that imaginary path in writing this book based on the experience I had. What would have happened to me? I stayed in that moment and asked “What if?” and the book flowed.

Q: You tend to come back to this question in your work of how much of our identity is nature and how much is nurture. In your essay, you ponder: What is it about me that is fundamental? What about my identity would have stayed the same, regardless of where I grew up? And, based on the environment that nurtures us, there’s a kind of “there by the grace of God” situation. What kind of perception does that give us, and why does it matter to you as a writer?

A: On an optimistic day, I think we are fundamentally who we are. In that good way—I mean, not if you’re a serial killer. Your sense of self is rooted, so rock-solid, I don’t think it matters in what city you grow up. Actually, I have no idea. Ask me the question next year and I’ll probably have a different answer. I can’t claim the truth. But I think who you are is not defined by where you are. As a writer, I’m interested in exploring that psychology.

Q: Can you go home again? What does that mean to you?

A: Well, like the main character in Going Home Again, his home is Madrid and Toronto. He’s blessed and cursed in the way that he’s got two homes, so always finds himself pulled, divided. In a way, many people are. You walk down the streets of Toronto and every second person was born somewhere else—even if it’s just as near as northern Ontario—but have been in the city for years. When my dad’s on his way to Germany, he says he’s going home. When he’s in Munich on his way back to Toronto, he says he’s going home. It feels like home can often feel like where you’re not. And much of it exists in your memory, that nostalgia you create in your head. And when you get there, things can have really changed when you go away. That Germany of my parents’ memory, and the reality of what they find there, can be so different, sometimes it’s unrecognizable. But, unlike when my parents came to Canada, I went to Madrid for the intellectual curiosity of what it might feel like to live in another city. It was self-imposed. But I was still always in two places, never fully satisfied, always aware of what I was missing on the other side of the ocean. But, ultimately, you can only live one life at a time.